It started with an email from my eclectic friend Wes Davis. He said he’d been reading Tinkerbelle, by, he told me, “Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who, in 1965, took a leave of absence from his job and sailed a 13-and-a-half-foot wooden boat across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England.” He’d come upon a passage he thought would interest me. Manry is just starting out and it’s a beautiful day, “the wind strong enough to keep us moving along briskly.” He observes: “I told myself that if most of the days ahead were as pleasant as this, our trip would be a breeze, or, as the English say, a piece of cake.”
Wes sent me the quote because his sense (like mine) is that “a piece of cake” is as American as red velvet cake. So what was with Manry’s attribution to the English?
As usual in such matters, I turned first to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which yielded the graph below. (The blue line represents British uses of the phrase “was a piece of cake” and the red line, American uses.)
Thus at the time Manry was writing, it was still predominantly a British phrase, but that would soon change.
There’s a bit of noise in the graph — that is, it tracks not only the figure of speech but literal uses, like “What they served me was a piece of cake.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the phrase is from a 1936 poem by the American Ogden Nash: “Her picture’s in the papers now,/And life’s a piece of cake.” But I feel that’s an outlier — merely a fresh metaphor concocted by Nash. I wasn’t able to turn up any uses until 1942, and all of the ones from then through the early 50s are English.
And specifically English military, and even more specifically, RAF. The first quote in the Google Books database comes from a 1942 Life magazine article written by an RAF pilot: “It sounds incredible considering that we were 150 miles from the target but the fires were so great that it was a piece of cake to find the target area.” The phrase, so redolent of the plucky fliers, really caught on. The same year, Terrence Rattigan’s play Flare Path has the line, “Special. Very hush-hush. Not exactly a piece of cake, I believe.” By 1943, it had become so well-known that Cyril Henry Ward-Jackson titled his book It’s a Piece of Cake: or R.A.F. Slang Made Easy.
As the Google chart indicates, American use started to pick up but often (as with Manry) with attribution to the English. A 1951 article in an American flying magazine had the line, “The radio operator’s weather reports show all stations ahead in good shape and as the English say, ‘It’s a piece of cake.’” Eventually, we took it to heart, and rightly so, since it’s a great phrase, nicely complementing easy as pie (which refers to a process, rather than a task) while still staying in the realm of baked goods. As with a number of other phrases I’ve covered — including bonkers, nonstarter, and ta-ta (meaning “goodbye”) — Americans have ended up using it far more than the Brits.
There’s a coda to the tale of a piece of cake. Fans of Roald Dahl may recognize it as the title of one of his short stories, included in his 1946 collection Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying. That story is actually an extensive reworking of his first published work, an article in the August 1942 edition of The Saturday Evening Post called “Shot Down Over Libya.” In the piece, labeled a “factual report,” Dahl talks about being given the assignment, in 1940, to bomb a group of Italian trucks in the Libyan desert. One of his fellow flyers remarks, “Hell’s bells, what a piece of cake!” Another agrees, “What a piece of cake.” (This is retroactive evidence of an earlier British use of the expression than given in the OED, but can’t be included in the dictionary as such since the publication date is 1942.)
It wasn’t a piece of cake for Dahl. As the story describes, he had a bad landing and was badly injured. But the story was far from a “factual report.” His plane was not shot down, as the title asserts and the text strongly implies. His biographer Jeremy Treglown writes, ”He stopped twice to refuel, the second time at Fouka, where he was given directions that may have been confused by events. 80 Squadron was not where he expected to find it, and as dusk gathered over the North African desert and his fuel gauge fell, he decided to try to land.”
The 1946 reworking was presented as fiction but had a more accurate account of the forced landing. In fact, just about the only thing it has in common with the 1942 version is “a piece of cake.”